Wednesday, April 21, 2010


In La Trouée d'Arenberg (the Arenberg Forest), when the breakaway passed by, nobody paid much attention. It was more a moment for us fanatics by the side of the race course to check our positions, to lock in our sightlines for the next minute or so when the big boys, the guys who really mattered, would be passing by—Cancellara, Boonen, Hushovd, Fleche, and so on. They were preceded by a thunderous roar, the crowd erupting as big Tom Boonen—and he does look big; Cancellara appears to be getting smaller and smaller, albeit faster and faster, in comparison—led the peloton through the cobbled road in the woods. At 2.4 km, it’s the longest, but apparently not the hardest section of pave; still, the bikes rattled and thrummed, bounced and jostled like they were riding down the middle of a railroad track.
Boonen, the hometown favorite (“Tornado Tom Frits” read the homemade banner held aloft just down the way), was having fun. His hands on the top of the bars, he appeared to be pulling everyone through, like some beast of burden pulling a plow. Just in front of us he turned around to inspect the damage he’d done just as I remember him doing at the same spot in last year’s race. (Though then of course, I was watching the Versus telecast.) This year though there was a difference: Fabian Cancellara, just two spots behind him, watching Boonen like a hawk, letting Tom do all the work, and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Which of course he would do in historic fashion riding away from everyone with some 30 miles to go.
Arenberg was the second spot we stopped. The first was Inchy, the first section of pave, and we stopped at a spot about a half hour past Arenberg which seemed almost a repeat of what we saw in the forest—Boonen at the front of the peloton doing all the work, Cancellara wisely tucked not far behind waiting for his moment. One wonders if Boonen got carried away in his quest for a fourth P-R or by the hometown cooking of the French-Belgian-Flanderian faithful.
The roar that erupted each time he pulled the peloton past us was deafening. We attended a few stages of the 2009 Tour of California which was certainly exciting, but the depth of feeling-devotion-history here in Northern France was unlike anything there; you felt it in your very soul. Or at least I did.
Still jetlagged, for we'd arrived in Paris just two days earlier, we awoke early that race Sunday morning and rode a cab to Gare du Nord where we caught a train to the start of Paris-Roubaix about an hour north of Paree in Compiegne. Narrow streets choked with fat chunky cobbles got us excited for the start as did the arrival of the Team buses—Saxo Bank, Quick-Step, BMC and all the rest.

We saw Cancellara’s bike but no Cancellara; he, along with most of the big names, must’ve waited ‘til the final minutes to sign in for we saw no one of note save for George Hincapie. As we watched and waited, listening to one overwrought rock ballad after another blasting from the PA (“Too much love will kill you, everytime …”—where did they get these songs?), we heard someone say “Hey, you’re from Bellingham, aren’t you?” It was Chris (whose last name I don’t recall), a real nice tall dude I met while racing some of the Indie Series races last summer. (Small world, or what?) Turns out Chris was doing the same thing we were—meeting up with a British group, Sports Tours International, who would be transporting us to several spots along the Paris-Roubaix route to watch the race. Truth be told, the bus—and more specifically, the hilarious, cycle-crazed guys in the back of the bus—from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Columbia and the U.S.—were probably what made Paris-Roubaix such a memorable experience for us. Most of the bus passengers were in it for a few days—they’d come over from London a couple days earlier, many even riding 112K of the race course the day before. (Oh, how I envied them.) Jen, Bake and I were among the handful or so who were in it for just a day trip.
They immediately welcomed us into their fold, sharing photos, drink, food, as well as hilarious tales of their misfortunes in attempting to ride the cobbles. A couple of them had hands that were absolutely chewed up with blisters from trying to hold on to their handlebars while battling the pave. Perhaps our favorites were the two young British boys—13 and 14—who had brilliant senses of humor.

One had a charming lisp and at one spot while we were waiting for the riders to come through, he noticed a fan across the roadway who’d obviously ridden out to watch, then put a pair of pants on over his shorts. He must’ve removed the white straps of his bib cycling shorts from his shoulders too because they just sort of hung down behind him.

“It lookth like thumone gave him a mathive wedgie,” he said to me.

It did too. And the phrase ‘mathive wedgie’ will now forever be in my lexicon.

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